ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Philippines Submarine Quest: What’s in the French Option?

Recent developments have spotlighted the French Scorpene within the choices the Philippines has in a potential submarine quest.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Philippines Submarine Quest: What’s in the French Option?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Philippine defense chief highlighted French submarines as being among the appropriate choices for the Philippines as it considers the capability. The comments once again spotlighted the increased traction that the Philippines’ submarine quest has been getting under the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in spite of the challenges that remain.

As I have noted before in these pages, the Philippine quest for a submarine capability is not new – it dates back to at least the 1990s and has seen subsequent incremental steps such as setting up a submarine office in 2013. However, under the Duterte administration, this has gained greater traction despite the resource investments it would require relative to other requirements within the country’s wider military modernization. While there has been a lack of specifics on the exact extent of progress since then, the submarine quest has nonetheless surfaced periodically, including within the context of Manila’s alignments with countries including Russia and South Korea.

This week, we saw another instance of this with the Philippine defense chief’s comments on French submarines. Following a pre-arranged visit to France last week where he got a first-hand look at the French option, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the option was a good model and an appropriate option for the Philippines’ requirement, a development that then spotlighted the Scorpene diesel-electric submarine manufactured by French defense contractor Naval Group (formerly DCNS) as a potential candidate for the Philippines’ needs.

Specifically, in response to an update from the Philippine News Agency (PNA) after the return from his trip, Lorenzana said on December 2 that after having a look at the French option, his assessment was that “it is a very good sub, appropriate for our needs.” Unsurprisingly, Lorenzana did not publicly disclose much more in the way of additional specifics given the sensitivity of the issue, be it on details regarding his visit or where the Philippines stood in evaluating various options.

Lorenzana’s comments themselves are not surprising. When the Philippines was initially talking about pursuing a submarine capability, France had been seen as being in the mix of countries under consideration. French Scorpene submarines are also present already in Southeast Asia’s security landscape, with Malaysia being a case in point.

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Nonetheless, ultimately, the decision the Philippines undertakes with respect to whether or not it pursues a submarine capability and which option it chooses will rest on more specific considerations, such as the sorts of arrangements and packages that can be worked out, including on the financing front (for instance, Lorenzana has previously said that the quest would likely be pursued on a government-to-government procurement basis and under a loan arrangement to enable the Philippines to afford submarines).

Lorenzana’s comments this week do not reveal anything definitive about the exact path the Philippines will eventually take with respect to submarines. But given the significance of the development – both on its own terms as well as for Philippine military modernization and broader regional security – any developments on this front will likely be continue to be scrutinized in the months and years that follow.